Trojan softball seeking trip to 3A state tournament

If experience leads to success, the 2004 Hillsboro softball team has a promising season ahead of it.

Led by seven returning letter-winners, including three All-Mid Central Activities Association performers, coach Carolyn Long sees her squad picking up right where it left off last season-in the regional finals.

“Right now I’m pretty satisfied with the girls’ skill level at this point in the season,” Long said. “Obviously, the more you practice the better you get. But we see them doing things already after the first week of practice that we didn’t see until the season was a fourth over last year.

“That comes from playing in the summer and from having players with three and four years of experience.”

In her sixth year as head coach, Long and assistant coach Stephanie Sinclair welcome back the nucleus of a team that went 13-10 last year and fell one win short of going to the Class 3A state tournament.

Third baseman Danielle Goossen, shortstop Amy Duerksen and catcher Emily Ratzlaff each were honorable-mention picks in the MCAA and form the core of a young but experienced team.

“All three of these girls are strong emotional and inspirational leaders,” Long said. “Their work ethics are just outstanding.

“Really, all of our girls are working hard and come to practice ready to practice,” she added. “It just about feels like I have to chase them off the field every day at about 6:15.

“They just love to play the game and they’re really working hard to improve.”

Goossen returns to the “hot corner” as a two-time All-MCAA pick after compiling an .851 fielding percentage in 2003.

The only senior on the team, Goossen is the Trojans’ top returning hitter with a .324 last season. She collected 24 hits in 74 at-bats, scored 22 runs and drove in seven.

“If you’re only going to have one senior, Danielle is the one you’d want to have,” Long said. “Everything she brings to the team, whether it be inspiration, work ethic, or as a cheerleader-she’s awesome to have as a senior leader.”

Amy Duerksen will fill the hole at shortstop for the Trojans once again. The junior recorded 27 putouts and 40 assists last year defensively.

At the plate, Duerksen hit .262 with 17 hits in 65 at-bats while driving in a team-leading nine runs.

Ratzlaff will be back at catcher, where the junior recorded 23 putouts and 40 assists. She hit .300 last season, with 18 hits in 60 at-bats while driving in six runs.

Also fueling Long’s optimism will be returning letter-winners Marissa Diener and Laura Lindsay on the mound.

Diener compiled a 5-6 record last season throwing a team-high 72 innings. The junior compiled a 3.21 earned-run average while allowing 71 hits and 56 runs, striking out 57 batters and walking just 11 with a fielding percentage of .879.

Lindsay was 5-4 with a 2.90 ERA as a freshman. She allowed 59 hits in 58 innings, striking out 28 batters and walking only six with a fielding percentage of .789.

“We have both our varsity pitchers back,” Long said. “They’re both great on the mound and strong at the plate and both are very solid defensively.

“A lot of other coaches in the league commented on their defensive abilities and with another year of experience, they should really be able to field their positions,” she added.

“They’ve both played since they were young and throw a variety of pitches that help throw the opposing hitters timing off.”

Backing up those two will be Erin Wiebe, who went 1-0 in her only start in 2003 as a sophomore.

“Erin’s style of pitching will add an element of adjustment for opposing batters,” Long said. “It’ll be nice to have three pitchers.”

Returning for Long at first base will be letter-winner Sara Hamm, who hit .203, collecting 13 hits in 64 plate appearances and driving in six runs.

The sure-handed defender recorded 150 putouts last year while committing just seven errors for a fielding percentage of .957.

“Sara is looking very strong at first base again this year,” Long said. “Our infield has rounded out very well.”

Long’s other returning letter-winner is sophomore Tiffany Knaak, who hit .300 in 10 at bats.

“Tiffany played in the outfield for us last year,” Long said.

Long said her junior class of 11 athletes will be the primary talent pool from which she’ll fill out the starting lineup.

“We’ll need some of these girls to step up and help us out at second base and in the outfield,” she said.

Long identified Heather Stepanek and Wiebe as possible contributors.

Long said Katie Baltzer, who has infield experience, “will step in and help us out” also.

Five sophomores and five juniors round out the 22-person roster, but Long thinks most of her younger talent is still developing.

“We’re hoping to get a lot of junior varsity games in so they can get some good experience,” she said.

After only one week of practice, Long said it’s difficult to identify strengths or weaknesses.

“But the girls’ willingness to work hard and try to get better is definitely an early plus,” she said. “We’ll probably be more of a power team because we don’t really have a ton of speed.

“But our players are very smart on the bases, which is sometimes even better than having pure speed,” she said. “We do have several girls who are capable of hitting the ball a long way.”

As usual, Wichita Collegiate will be a major roadblock for the Trojans. Also tough, according to Long, will be Smoky Valley and Lyons. Halstead will field a team for the first time this season.

Thus far, Long said it’s nice to see how well the girls communicate-not only with each other, but with the coaching staff.

“We have so many people who just step up and do their part and communicate very well,” she said. “They really talk and everyone knows what’s going on and that’s been very pleasing to me as a coach.”

While team goals have yet to be established, Long said making a trip to state would be a nice reward for a season of hard work.

“You always hope your kids are able to take positive things from a program regardless of your win/loss record or how far you go into post season,” she said. “I’m more of a motivational coach and I try to look for the good in everything.

“Every year you hope you make it further than you did the previous season and last year we lost in the regional finals,” she said. “Obviously, our next step would be to make it to the state tournament this year.”

Hillsboro begins that quest Friday at Marion.

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